The Representation of Gender and Power in ‘Game of Thrones’

Season 8 Premiere

As the final season opens, it is time for reunions, preparations for war, and political decisions, and it is women who dominate the show. In this episode, there are five prominent women: Cersei, Danarys, Sansa, Arya and Yara. They are very different and complex characters, they also share a lot. They all have suffered pain, humiliation, and loss. They are all survivors, and resilience is what makes them strong and powerful. But at the same time, there are also shades of grey to their characters.

The men in the show, too, have suffered significant losses and went through great challenges that marked their journeys of personal growth. For many of them – the good guys – this journey is one of redemption. They have done mistakes, even committed horrendous crimes, and yet we have come to love them. Take Jaime for example. That one glance at the end of the episode says a thousands words. If he was originally depicted as a villain, we came to see throughout the seasons that he does have a heart – though he was tied to the woman he loved. Now that he is liberated from her, he has come to do what is right, and that includes coming face to face with the harm he has done in the past.

The Hound, too, used to feature high up in Arya’s to-kill-list, but they have now come to silently love each other. Other men are just good, like Jon Snow, or Sam. For them, the main personal challenge to overcome is feeling divided between honour and, once again, women. But unlike the women, these men are not moved by a thirst for power, hatred, or revenge.

The women are typically represented in two main ways. One the one hand, there are ladies with stunning beauty, feminine qualities, and a taste for power. They are surrounded by men who are loyal to them and serve as protectors or advisors, and they draw their power from them. Some of these women use their sexuality to influence and manipulate men for their own agendas. On the other hand, there are women whose masculine traits are emphasised, like Arya, Brienne, and Yara. These women are skilled fighters. They are not so much after power, and they influence politics through their warrior skills. However, the fact that they lack feminine qualities is frequently pointed out, and they are bullied for it, particularly in the case of Brienne and Arya, in different ways. The warrior skills come together with an overall masculine personality, which is shown as a quality, something that makes them stand out, but at the same time, there is a sour feel to it. They are bullied for not being proper ‘ladies’, and also for not being men.

Arya is a loved character, and by now she seems to have achieved a sort of a dark assassin superpower. Confronted with emotional reunions in this episode, references to her include how she ‘lurks around’ and is a ‘cold bitch’, even though with affection. And then, when she meets Jon, she finally smiles and throws her arms around him. She looks for a moment like an innocent girl again, just to show the contrast with where she is now.

Women like Arya, Yara, and Brienne are not surrounded by male protectors, but are constantly compared to their male counterparts. All the women in Game of Thrones have had to go through humiliation and suffering to demonstrate that they are equal to – or better – than the men.  That is especially true for the women in power. Also, another thing that all the ‘queens’ have in common, is that they have lost their parents and they are bringing forward the legacy of their fathers – again men. They have to fight men and prejudice, often from within their own family, to keep their grip on power. Through their politics and rule, they seem to have to demonstrate that they are the true heirs of their fathers.  Now that we enter the last season, this is clearer than ever. Let’s have a quick look at their ruling style.

Cersei

Cersei continues the Lannister tradition of using money as a leverage for power – and viceversa. She shows no concern at all for the people. This is clear in this episode, since she is introduced counting the resources she has gathered to fight her war. She is leading preparations for war. Her demands for ships and elephants make her look powerful and ambitious, and so do the constant threats of executions. Her power depends on the men around her. As she gave up the one who loved her the most, she now needs to rely on Euron. Though she is annoyed and keeps showing that she is in control, she ends up making a compromise that shows her vulnerability. In the conversation that follows, parallels are drawn with the previous time she had to use her body for the sake of power, when she was unhappily married to king Baratheon.

Through her politics, Cersei embodies the Lannister legacy. In this episode, this is stated very clearly when she plots to assassinate her brothers with the weapons that Tyrion used to kill their father. The message here is that she is the true and only hair of Tywin Lannister. The difference with Cersei and her father, however, is that while the latter aimed at increasing the influence of the Lannister house, Cersei is more driven by a narrower idea of security for her children, and by her hatred.

Danarys

Danarys’, mission too, is to achieve power. Though she is a queen already, what matters to her, since the beginning, is the Iron Throne. Again, it’s all about her father’s legacy. However, Danarys also wants to demonstrate that ‘she is NOT her father. She wants to be a good queen. Is she? During her challenging journey as a queen, she has been shifting between harsh punishments and compassion to deal with dissent and disobedience. She is surrounded by devoted men – and a woman – as trusted advisors to deal with political dilemmas, but the final decisions that involve violence are often hers alone. Her desire for power and use of violence has been looking more and more controversial, and it is now openly questioned.

As she reaches Winterfall with a powerful display of her loyal army and dragons, she expects to be obeyed by people who did not choose her nor trust her. She tells Jon that she expects Sansa to respect her as a queen even if she cannot like her. And then Sam’s scene breaks the question open. What does it mean to be a good royal? Jon is the true hero because he sacrificed his crown, because he was never after power. It seems clear now that, to be the good queen, Danarys will also have to let go of her crown and demonstrate that she deserves being a selfless leader. At the same time, it is a test of love, too. Does she love Jon enough to give up on her throne and title?

Sansa

Now that her journey of liberation from the men who used her is completed, Sansa is a model ruler. She seems the best suited to fill the void left by her father more than any of her brothers. She leads with honour – the characteristic of the Starks. She keeps the noble houses united, and takes care of the needs of the population. She is no longer a naive girl. Arya comments that she is the ‘smartest person she has ever met’.

The relationship with Jon is also warmer than in the past, but there are still some shadows there. In this episode, there are several hints at their differences, including in their political speeches in front of the Lords. Now Danarys is the reason for friction between them, but even in the past seasons we have seen similar confrontations between the two siblings. Jon felt that Sansa undermined him as a leader, and as Jon Snow is Jon Snow, who never sought power but only the greater good, we believed him. Perhaps, Sansa resented his power. The tension is also due to the fact that Sansa represents the Starks and the North, while Jon is fighting another battle. This time, however, Jon is motivated not only by the Greater Good but also by a woman. Sansa and Danarys so far have both been represented as heroines, though with an interest for power. Are they going to help Jon in his mission for the Greater Good?

Yara

Similarly to the other queens, Yara has all the qualities to be the true heir of her father and to bring forward the legacy of the Greyjoys. She is a positive character overall. Her leadership is contested by the men around her, and she is constantly humiliated for being a woman, so she has to prove to be like the men, or better. Her storyline, however, is not really about her. It is about Theon. It is Theon who has gone through an intense journey that radically changed him, and he now has to find his courage and honour back. He frees Yara, not because he is braver than her, but because he is it trying hard to be more like her. In the end, she chooses to go to defend their home, while he goes to Winterfell to be redeemed, to fight for honor (the Starks) and the greater good.

Women and Class

There is something else all these women have in common: they are all from a noble background – though Danarys reminds, even in this episode, that she is not highly educated. But where are the other women? Lower class women hardly have a voice. They mostly appear to happily give pleasure to men, and satisfy their fantasies. Cersei, in this episode, draws a line between a prostitute that can be bought, and a queen that needs to be ‘earned’. Right after saying this, she ends up pretty much selling her body in exchange for ships and men. How is she feeling? And then the next scene, we have Bronn surrounded by prostitutes, and is interrupted by a message from Cersei who wants to kill her brothers. Is there a subtle reference here?

The past eight seasons have brought the game of thrones to be ruled by powerful women. The men, in the meantime, worked for honor, redemption, and to save humanity. As the show gets closer to its end, we will also see what role women will play in the epic conclusion.

This review is part of a research project on the representation of violence in popular culture.
Monica Carrer, PhD

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